The UNESCO World Heritage site of Petra, nestled amid the sandstone valleys and cliffs of southern Jordan’s rugged desert landscape, was built more than 2,000 years ago as the capital of the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people of humble nomadic origin who grew wealthy from their control of the lucrative Arabian trade in frankincense and myrrh. For more than 200 years, Petra was the heart of a vast and powerful trading kingdom that stretched from Damascus in Syria to the Hejaz in modern-day Saudi Arabia, before finally being annexed to the Roman Empire in A.D. 106. With such wealth and position, the Nabataeans established a first-order capital city of the Greco-Roman world, uniquely designed and engineered to take full advantage of Petra’s mountainous desert setting.
Most striking and well known are the hundreds of rock-cut monuments and tombs carved into the towering cliff faces that surround the city, particularly the famous and Hellenistic-inspired facade of Al-Khazneh, or “the Treasury” and the massive but more austere construction of Ad-Deir, or “the Monastery. Equally impressive are a 6,000-seat Roman-style theater , carved directly from Petra’s rose-colored sandstone bedrock, and a row of exquisite tomb facades (the so-called “Royal Tombs”) overlooking the heart of the ancient city.
Flanking the wide, half-mile long, colonnaded boulevard at the heart of Petra are the key institutions and monuments that facilitated daily life in the bustling metropolis. These include the remnants of luxurious pools and gardens, an elegant monumental fountain, and a grand royal audience hall (the so-called “Great Temple”). At the culmination of the main street is Petra’s sacred quarter, which features two elaborate, monumental temples: the imposing and well-preserved Qasr al-Bint, which was likely the state shrine of the Nabataean god Dushara, and the Temple of the Winged Lions, an opulent colonnaded temple built to honor the Arabian goddess al-Uzza. It is this monument which is the focus of ACOR’s current project.
Built on a promontory overlooking the city center, the Temple of the Winged Lions was a majestic sacred complex that featured a massive ascending staircase, a monumental entrance flanked by gigantic columns, and an inner cultic chamber with a raised podium set amid a forest of columns. While most of the columns had beautiful Corinthian-style capitals, the dozen columns surrounding the main podium were adorned with the unique “winged lion” or sphinx-like capitals that give the monument its name. The temple’s spiritual focus was likely an unadorned standing stone, representative of the goddess (a typical feature of Nabataean religion), that was set atop the podium and around which priests and devotees would circumambulate in ritual procession. The walls and columns of the temple’s inner sanctum were brightly painted with floral and figurative designs, while small recesses and niches surrounding the podium held offerings and idols emblematic of the goddess.
Thought to have been built by the Nabataeans during the first century A.D., the temple continued to thrive well into the Roman period and only fell out of use following the devastating earthquake that struck Petra in A.D. 363.
The TWLCRM Initiative is grateful for the generous support of Royal Jordanian Airlines.